2021 COTA Cup Kurt Busch face NKP

Racing, like all sports, is a game of numbers. This column brings readers NASCAR by the numbers each week. But the truth is, it’s really about the people who put up the numbers.

Drivers and crew members come and go. The years catch up to the best of them, producing hundreds who won’t be remembered except by a few dedicated fans here and there.

This year, time and the toll of the sport caught up with the last driver of an era.

Kurt Busch, the last full-time Cup Series driver to have faced down Dale Earnhardt on the racetrack, announced that he won’t return to the series as a full-time driver after the effects of a concussion he suffered at Pocono Raceway during qualifying earlier this year.

Realistically, while Busch left the door open for a few races next year or down the road, the chances of a return to a full season of competition are small. Busch is 44 years old; not an old man by any standard except, perhaps, that of professional athletes. Drivers racing after 45 these days are a rarity and contending for titles rarer still. That goes for just about any era, even when drivers stretched their careers to the bitter end.

Change is inevitable. Busch was the last to have raced against Earnhardt. Jeff Gordon, who retired in 2015, was the last full-timer to have raced against Richard Petty (though it was only once; Gordon’s first Cup race was Petty’s last). There are already full-time drivers who never raced against Jimmie Johnson; someday, one of today’s young guns will hold the distinction of being the last, too.

But time marches on. The sport changes. Racecars change, at some point past even the best drivers’ comfort zones. Bodies age and can’t quite react as quickly, can’t bounce back from an injury overnight anymore.

When Busch entered the Cup Series in 2000 on a partial schedule (at the time, seven races was the maximum a driver could run and still compete for rookie honors), he was also running the Truck Series full-time — and already gaining a reputation.

Frankly, Busch was hard to like and difficult to respect. He was volatile to his crew, to media, and even, on one occasion, to law enforcement. He burned bridges with some of NASCAR’s top teams — despite undeniable talent, Busch was impulsive and aggressive.

There were times that his temper bested Busch on track and cost him races. He admitted to trying to cut Jimmy Spencer’s tire at high-speed Michigan International Speedway. He hit cars on pit road. He berated his crew on the radio with very colorful language (on one occasion, comparing the team’s performance to a monkey…um, enjoying a football a whole lot).

There were times Busch’s future was questioned because there weren’t a lot of team owners willing to take chances with him — the bridge fires were infernos that could be seen for miles.

But somewhere along the line, Busch mellowed. He got better at controlling his temper and choosing his words. Sometimes, his younger brother helped, making Kurt look tame in comparison, but the metamorphosis happened, and the winds shifted.

When Busch faced domestic violence charges in late 2014 that led to a suspension to start 2015 until the situation turned out to be unfounded, fans sided with the driver, because he wasn’t that brash kid anymore. He was respected, because he made himself respectable, and more than that, likable.

Busch’s championship season will be remembered because it was the first time NASCAR decided the title with a playoff system. That’s not any fairer to Busch than any champion crowned since; he didn’t make the rules, only raced under what was given to him. If there are questions about that title or any since, they shouldn’t be aimed at the driver.

What Busch became was not just a more respectable driver, but one headed for the NASCAR Hall of Fame. Twenty-fifth on the all-time win list, Busch surpassed some of the Hall of Famers he raced against — he has more victories than Dale Jarrett, Dale Earnhardt Jr., or Terry and Bobby Labonte.

The reinvented Busch was invited to broadcast a few races in the Truck and Xfinity series a few years back…and he turned out to be quite good at it. Despite sometimes sounding like he ate a Thesaurus before each race, Busch has become a standout in the booth.

Looking back, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly when Busch changed from one of NASCAR’s most disliked drivers to one of its most respected. There were times when it seemed as though he’d grown… until something set him off again. But along the line, the outbursts stopped and the on-track aggression was tempered into smart, controlled competition, the kind that made Busch a future Hall of Famer.

If he should choose the broadcast booth for his next step, he’ll be an asset to whoever he works for and to the sport.

It’s all too unfortunate Busch didn’t get to exit on his own terms; as a veteran driver, he deserved the opportunity to hang up his helmet for the last time at his own volition.

But time marches on. NASCAR has a crop of talented youngsters just beginning to invent themselves on track and off. They’ll find their places, earn their respect, and someday, someone will write nice things about them when they retire.

Drivers come into the sport and are often loved and hated all at once. They’re often the ones who earn the most respect and leave a void when they go. The great ones put up great numbers, but it’s always been about the people.

And eventually, time catches up with the best of them.

Follow @Writer_Amy

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